Depression After Spiritual Enlightenment
Realizing the emptiness of all things is a normal part of spiritual awakening. For some people that leads to serious depression and the feeling that life is pointless. If you feel stuck in this painful nihilistic perspective, you are not alone.
I received a very poignant message from a reader who went to see a psychiatrist because her feelings of profound emptiness were causing her to feel depressed and listless. Everything that used to matter was suddenly empty, pointless. The more her sense of a separate self dissolved into oneness with the infinite, the more she was left feeling hollow and empty inside. Her doctor gave her medication, which blunted the extremes; she no longer feels the deepest lows, but the emptiness and hollowness are still present. And the more she is absorbed in oneness with what she calls God, the more everything else loses significance, the more pointless and meaningless everything else becomes. She feels alone in this experience, as though no one else who experiences spiritual awakening goes through this bleak depression.
Depression after spiritual awakening is common. But who wants to talk about it publicly? You will hear endless accounts of bliss and oneness. But it’s not often that people want to talk about how difficult it can be to adjust. Yes, there is bliss and oneness but there can also be tremendous sorrow or disorientation or feelings of profound bleakness. Sometimes these bleak feelings even happen at the same time as bliss and oneness. People euphemistically call this The Dark Night Of The Soul. Well, that sounds poetic, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t feel so poetic when you are in the middle of it. Especially if you believe that it’s not supposed to be this way and that you are the only one.
I regard spiritual awakening as a kind of second puberty. Only, in modern times there is at least more information and dialogue about the first puberty, and teenagers know they are not the only ones who go through it. Spiritual puberty is mysterious, not widely discussed and often shrouded in layers upon layers of traditional religious dogma or New Age carnival drama. Just imagine if you were 13 and going through puberty, only you had never actually met another person who had gone through it, you had nobody to talk to about it and the information that you could find was either written by some Indian dudes centuries ago in cryptic language or modern people channeling extra terrestrials. Imagine if you went to the doctor (and of course, your doctor knew nothing about puberty!) because you started growing hair in weird places and had intense mood swings.
Of course, when we are teenagers going through puberty everyone expects us to have intense feelings, they expect us to be awkward in expressing or managing our feelings, and they know we are changing rapidly. There is information and support. When you feel like your whole world is over because some boy doesn’t like you or you didn’t make the swim team, ideally your parents are there to assure you that it will pass and that having these intense feelings (on both ends of the spectrum, because you can also feel intensely in love or on top of the world during puberty) is normal for your age. At the time you don’t really appreciate that your parents are normalizing your experience, it doesn’t seem to help because you still feel like it’s the end of the world. But what if no one was there to normalize your experience?
I’m here to tell you that you are going through puberty. Just like the first, physical puberty, it’s most intense during the first five years or so, but even after that it takes some time to adjust and grow into this new state of being. Think about people who are twenty. Have they totally mastered their new adult status and are they holding their sexuality like an adept? Probably not.
Everyone goes through this spiritual puberty differently. That can include feeling things very intensely, things like being one with all that is, bliss, love. And also things like sorrow, anger, loneliness, alienation, homesickness, the suffering of others, meaninglessness. Imagine going through puberty and getting stuck in any of our intense feelings. It’s not that feeling them is a mistake, but getting stuck in any of them is definitely not good.
This isn’t just about not getting stuck in the bad feelings, but this applies also to the good feelings. We feel bliss and oneness and then we get attached to feeling these heights. We feel the depths of some unpleasant feeling and we get stuck there. We see the things in our lives that used to be so meaningful are suddenly empty and meaningless…and we get stuck there. We fixate on it and get stuck.
My theory? Your body will respond to this. If you are stuck in the bliss, your brain is pumping out a yummy and addictive cocktail. When the bliss subsides, you can be left in withdrawal. If you get stuck on the bleak end, your brain chemistry will veer into that of a depressed person, blocking neurotransmitters that allow you to feel good.
Some people will encounter emptiness and not become depressed, but some people do. Some people will encounter bliss and not become addicted to it, but some people will. No matter how you are responding to your spiritual puberty, you are definitely not alone.
Let’s examine this experience of emptiness a bit. Before you wake up, you are living from a center of being. That center of being is your belief in a separate and real self. Some call this “ego” but I really don’t like this term. It was coined by Sigmund Freud and has become very popular, but I don’t really give much credence to Freud’s work in general. Anyway, this personality-self gives meaning, significance and importance to all kinds of things: people, relationships, jobs, religious or spiritual beliefs, everything. It all has a meaning. And hopefully your life and actions have a purpose. Maybe that purpose is quite mundane, or maybe you have a wonderful virtuous life purpose…to become enlightened or to help other people. Wonderful. Until you wake up.
All the purpose and meaning you projected onto the world is suddenly gone. Does this take some adjustment? Yes! If you don’t adjust well and don’t adjust immediately, does this mean you suck at being an enlightened person? No. But do realize when you are getting stuck in one experience and perspective.
Something I’ve noticed on this journey is that I don’t get to find a comfy place and just stay there. It’s so comfortable to believe in things, to believe in progress or ascension or heaven or virtue or helping people or that there is some purpose at all for anything. When my daughter was born and I held her in my arms for the first time, did I need a purpose for her being? No. When I look at the bees going from flower to flower in my garden, do I need them to have a purpose? How about my beloved cat, who is at this moment curled up into a perfect black furry ball next to me, sleeping? What is his purpose? Out of the Absolute, out of the Body Of God, out of the mysterious nothingness, all of these things appear. What is their purpose? Do they need a purpose? Or, if they do have a purpose, do I need to know it?
Purpose and meaning are subtle movements of the mind. It says it would like a comfy place to stand on, some real estate. You may look around and be able to find no real estate. Even if you wanted to find purpose and meaning in things, you can’t anymore. Is there any point to my cat, or the bees in the garden, or my daughter? I don’t know.
Is there any purpose to this blog? Do I have some virtuous mission to help people? What’s the point? From my perspective, there is no point and no purpose. This is just a natural expression of an instinct I have to share and communicate. It’s no big deal. It’s not my life mission, it’s not my purpose. Yet I am still able to do it and enjoy it.
Readers tell me I’ve helped them, and that feels great. But it’s not serious. If I have helped ten people, would it be worth it? If I helped only one person, would that be worth it? What is this idea of worth? Do I really need to justify doing something by ascribing a value to it? Do I need to justify my actions, or even my existence by placing a meaning or value on it? Or can I just act instinctively, naturally, like my cat or the bees?
Yes, you can see everything as empty, including yourself. And when confronted with this profound emptiness, you can become very disoriented. But the emptiness can also be liberating, if you release the mind’s insistence of meaning and purpose. Release it and see what comes. What is it like to live life without the (security) tyranny of meaning/purpose? Be curious about it and see. I’m not saying it is easy, but you can absolutely shift your perspective at any time. Both my cat and I are equally empty, without purpose or meaning, and yet…how delightful we are! How perfect we are! How I rejoice in our being.
Another thing to consider if you’ve gotten stuck in depression is that you’ll need to shift your body as well as your perspective. Do things that will assist your brain to shift out of being stuck in depression. These things include eating for optimum brain health (minerals/aminos/vitamins/lots of healthy fats), cut out unhealthy or empty foods, definitely don’t drink alcohol or anything other depressants, stabilize your blood sugar (seriously, unstable blood sugar leads to mood instability). Get moderate to vigorous exercise daily. Try spending 10 minutes a day on a rebounder, which helps move lymph and can temporarily lift your mood. You don’t have to get a big one, there are small ones that fit neatly under your bed. Get sunshine when possible, and supplement with high quality vitamin D3, which is well known as essential for mood support. These are all things that support your body in shifting to a healthier mood pattern.
Once your perspective and your body have shifted to a more neutral position, you can begin your adjustment. It may take a long time to adjust to living life while holding the essential emptiness of things. There is nothing in modern life that supports this, everything is built around purpose and desire and achieving something. Don’t judge yourself or become impatient if you are having a hard time integrating. Just know that the turbulent part of spiritual puberty doesn’t last forever. It’s tempting to take it all so seriously, but it does pass. Our job is to hold it as lightly as we can and keep moving through it.
How about the rest of you? Do you have any good advice or insights for people who are getting stuck in depression? What has helped you to shift your perspective and get moving again?
"We’ve gotten into the habit of always wanting what’s next. We bring this consumeristic approach to spirituality as well. We learn something, file it away, and want what’s next. The next teaching, the next guru, the next spiritual blogger, the next method, the next initiation, a longer retreat, another psychedelic shamanic journey. We want what’s next when we haven’t even become intimate with the teaching or the experience or the knowledge that is right in front of us."